by Christian Vassie
chapter 3 - a sea of faces I 16th December 2011
‘… and I’ll tell them that there were once whales the size of houses and fish with saws on the front of their heads and huge tuna fish that weighed half a tonne, and dolphins that lived in rivers, and beautiful sharks with heads like hammers.’ I am practically shouting at the sea of staring faces. ‘And my grandchildren will say “Wow, you mean they actually existed? Like the dinosaurs?” And I will have to reply, yes, just like the dinosaurs.’
I pause, gripping the sides of the podium, waiting for the adrenalin surge to fade. ‘I’ll be fifty-three in 2050 and you will all be dead. Are empty oceans your legacy to my future?’
‘Or will you take action?’ Rafael adds in Italian. ‘Thank you for listening.’
Rafael is the other competition winner. He’s wearing a suit and tie, and reminds me of a nerdy and even skinnier version of Shaggy in Scooby-Doo. Before you ask, I know what Rafael just said because a woman is standing next to us signing in English for the hard of hearing. Fred, my little brother is deaf, so I’ve been signing for years.
We wait while our final words are translated.
‘Mr Rafael Bernini and Miss Sam Blanchard,’ the President of the Parliament says. ‘Thank you to you both for ensuring the parliament is aware of how passionate young people are about our oceans and forests and the biodiversity they support.’
The applause is loud but polite rather than wild and enthusiastic. In the gallery above the hemicycle I see Eva, the head of the Wild World campaign in Brussels. She is clapping like she means it.
The room is massive. Hundreds of Members of the European Parliament sit behind their desks, organised in a series of concentric semicircles. Most of the MEPs wear headphones. An army of translators, hidden behind huge windows, turn whatever language is spoken into twenty-three other languages to ensure that each of the one thousand five hundred ears can understand every word spoken by any of the seven hundred and fifty mouths. It’s like those inter-galactic conference scenes in science fiction films, except that here the occupants all look vaguely human; no long purple trunks, no eyes on the ends of tentacles, no giant orange stick insects …
We follow the steward up the steps, under the 27 EU flags, towards the VIP exit. The President of the Parliament gives us a brief smile while arranging his papers.
‘You could have spoken a little more loudly,’ Rafael says.
‘Thanks, that shows real empathy, Rafael. You are a very rounded human being. Your family must all be professional therapists or experts in conflict resolution.’
I pause on the threshold, reminding myself that the parliament we have just addressed represents 500 million people. And it isn’t every day you see me in a dress, with my hair plaited like a ballet dancer. If Mum hadn’t insisted, it would be jeans and a t-shirt. I hope someone has taken a good photo that I can show her.
‘Milan have drawn Arsenal,’ the steward says to Rafael. ‘And Napoli will play Chelsea.’
‘We are finished. We have to sell Taiwo. My nose runs faster than he does.’
What is it with boys and football? I had to argue with Rafael about removing his smart phone off the podium while we were giving our speeches.
Stepping out into the corridor, I am smacked into from the left, so hard that I end up on the floor. My head is spinning as Rafael and the steward lift me to my feet.
‘I am so sorry. You are not hurt?’
I look at my assailant. A perfectly coiffured blond woman, about Mum’s age, wearing a ultramarine trouser suit, and shoes that must cost more than many people spend on their summer holidays. Like me, she looks a little groggy from the impact.
‘Don’t worry,’ Rafael says to the woman, ‘she’ll be all right.’
Like he would know? I shrug his arm away.
‘I heard your speech. A fighter, just like your father. He would be proud of you.’ The woman produces a small envelope and a pen from the caramel coloured leather bag slung over her right shoulder and scribbles quickly on the envelope. ‘I didn’t want to miss you.’
‘You didn’t,’ I say, feeling my nose to check it isn’t broken.
‘This is for your father.’ She thrusts the envelope into my hands.
I shove the envelope in the pocket of my dress. My father? That’s the second time she’s said it.
The woman takes my hands and squeezes them. ‘You are as beautiful as I imagined. Your friends must be jealous of all that thick dark hair and those blue eyes. A little tall for a girl, perhaps, but we cannot fight our genes. Are you staying for the biodiversity debate?’
‘Our minder, Stephanie, has organised everything,’ I explain. ‘I’m not sure what she has planned for us.’
‘I am proposing an amendment against illegal fishing operations in the Mediterranean. If it passes there will be action to help Italy and France destroy illegal bluefin tuna pens. Maybe Stephanie will bring you in to listen.’ She smiles and walks away. Before disappearing round the curve of the corridor, she turns. ‘Call me.’ And with that she is gone.
The steward wipes a hand over his bald head. ‘You will be all right?’
‘Then you will excuse me.’ The steward leaves.
Chatting and laughing, a group of blue suited men emerge from a room across the corridor. Before the door swings shut, Rafael is there looking into the room. He beckons me over. We enter.
‘You sure this is for us?’
‘Hunger busting scenario,’ Rafael explains through a mouthful of pastry.
Grinning like an empty coat hanger, he offers me a small tart containing olives and tomatoes. ‘You didn’t tell me your father was famous.
I take the tart, ignore the comment. It has nothing to do with him. The tart is delicious, I hadn’t realised I was so hungry.
Along one wall there are floor to ceiling curtains. Beneath the modern art hanging on the opposite wall is a long table upon which are an assortment of drinks, elaborate sandwiches and tarts. Beside the room’s only window, is a bank of television screens. The first screen shows the debating chamber. The second shows a television news channel, and the third a shot of the corridor outside.
Like a sucker, I fall for it. As I turn, Rafael takes my photo on his smart phone. What is it with boys?
‘So your dad, is he also …’
‘He isn’t anything,’ I shout, spraying crumbs. ‘He’s dead.’
‘OK. Sorry.’ Rafael pockets his phone and takes a couple of sandwiches. Why does he keep pushing his stupid fringe off his face? Blonds.
Behind him the door handle is turning. Convinced that we are in trouble, blame my upbringing, I grab Rafael’s arm and drag him towards the curtains. I know, hiding with your feet sticking out from under a length of golden fabric is dumb but, as luck would have it, there is a recess behind the curtain. And a door. Not so stupid after all. Well done that girl.
The sound of a bottle top being unscrewed. The pfft of a fizzy drink.
‘How long do we wait?’ The voice is rough like cement.
The second voice is like the first but less polished. ‘We wait.’
They’re speaking in French.
‘Yes, but I thought …’
‘You aren’t paid to think.’
Carefully and quietly, I reach me behind me and try the door handle. It’s locked. Damn. Beside me Rafael is dribbling sandwich crumbs down his jacket.
‘Did you …’ he starts to whisper.
I wave a finger to shut him up and point at the locked door.
‘Why kill her here?’ asks the first voice on the other side of the curtain. ‘There are too many people.’
‘Which is why it is perfect, you imbecile. A thousand suspects. Two thousand kilometres from home.’
‘We should have fed her to the fish. Like the other one. Less evidence.’
My heart is thumping, who are they? Are they really plotting a murder? I tug the edge of one of the curtains, just enough to see into the room. Across the room a thick set man with close cropped hair is pulling at the collar of his shirt as he coughs to clear his throat.
“Olive,” he explains to the shorter man. ‘Ready?’
The second man dabs his glistening forehead with a dirty handkerchief, then pulls a gun from a holster under his armpit. He thrusts his hand, gun and all, into his jacket pocket. The curtains billow, the air pressure in the room is changing. Both men turn towards the opening door.
Through the narrow gap between the gently swaying curtains I glimpse two people entering and stifle a gasp. Being ushered into the room in front of a man so fat that it is impossible to see where his face ends and his neck begins is the woman who bumped into me moments ago. She looks furious.
‘What do you want?’ she asks in English. ‘I am addressing the parliament in five minutes.’
The fat man answers in Italian. I can’t understand what he says but I can tell from the way he spits out his words that he is threatening her.
She answers in Italian, her face defiant, and turns to leave. The man blocks her path.
Beside me there is a tiny click and I am pulled backwards.
The corridor is empty as Rafael closes the door and grips the handle, his whole body straining as someone rattles the handle from the other side of the door. The rattling stops. ‘Run,’ Rafael says.
Copyright © 2014 Christian Vassie